Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Phenomenological music criticism

In this blog entry Tiger Roholt makes the excellent point that far too much pop music criticism simply classifies what you hear (it sounds like the Beatles) or isolates individual elements (the bassline is thoroughly funky) when it should articulate a way to hear, a manner by which the critic's perception and the reader's can be aligned. Now such phenomenological convergence is no simple thing, nor is the discovery of language reliable enough to convey such instruction that would permit it. But it is a useful starting point to think about ways to move criticism away from the dictatorial imposition of taste (the power implicit in which is probably what attracts most reviewers to write in the first place -- they sure aren't doing it for the money) and red-herring concerns about "objectivity" toward something more useful -- how reading about music can help you hear it differently and enrich the store of perceptual experiences a song can give you.

When mainstream pop critics are good, they tend to do this already -- Sasha Frere-Jones often has an excellent feel for this, explaining what he hears in the interlocking array of elements he has chosen to focus on and bring to the fore. He's much less interested in (a) proving how much he knows by flaunting obscure references -- a tried and true academician's strategy for establishing authority and deflecting challenges, (b) imposing his taste on you as a kind of gold standard or give you a consumer's guide to the music marketplace -- criticism as PR in which the critic measures his effectiveness, how right he is, by properly guessing what's popular or by influencing the way others shop, or (c) performing linguistic gymnastics with ultraimaginative similes, left-feld metaphors and tightly coiled springs of alliterative adjectives and nouns turned into verbs.

Subjective criticism should never mean that one gets to express unsubstantiated opinion and then pass it off with the excuse that taste can't be judged and to each his own. It should always be a matter of a critic working harder to embody the basis for what she's perceiving, to articulate her subject position, as we used to say in graduate seminars. Of course, I rarely have the energy to do this myself in my own reviewing, so I'm one to talk. I guess the way one would acheive it is by doing the equivelant of close reading, by focusing in on a specific moment in a song and mining it thoroughly. The problem is so few moments seem worthy of such attention, esepcially when the pop music you're hearing is not yet cathected to personal experiences, memories, nostalgic moods. This is the real problem with subjective criticism -- it's this body of associations that truly guides one's appreciation for pop music, and these should be kept personal, private; they have no bearing on a public conversation about the significance of some cultural object. If a critic taps into these associations, she ceases to be a critic and becomes a memoirist, obliterating the thing discussed and replacing it with her own self-importance

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